Two new films take a poetic and fantastical look at the artifice of sensual surfaces to imagine the horrific realities beneath.
by Tim Jackson
“Life itself is a dramatically enacted thing” said Erving Goffman, the author of Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. More than ever before we are obsessed with our culture’s visual parade of celebrity heroes, beautiful people, and staged events. People imagine their own lives as reality shows. We may hate the surveillance cameras, but we still clamor for attention and recognition. Back in the day Elton John, Jimi Hendrix, and Liberace dressed in circus styles, and Kiss made clown make-up hip, today we’ve got Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Marilyn Manson, Insane Clown Posse and a Grammy Awards program turned postmodern show biz burlesque. Everyone is free to flaunt him or herself outrageously. Gay and straight, male and female, blur. There have always been fads regarding the body, of course, but now we have an assembly line of tattooed surfaces, colored, shaved and sculpted hairstyles. At the mercy of greedy corporations, a growing surveillance state, a government trending toward the plutocratic, and a society riven by class, religious, and political divisions, people feel less and less control over their lives. The body and flesh are places where one can still call the shots: flesh and follicles are the canvas.
Two recent films take a poetic and fantastical look at the sensual artifice of surfaces to imagine the horrific realities beneath. In Only Lovers Left Alive, director Jim Jarmusch presents two vampires named Adam and Eve as cool aficionados of culture. With their pale skin, sunglasses, red lips, and hair dyed black or bleached colorless, they blend in smoothly with any group of hip nocturnal art students or musicians. They are played flawlessly by the already ultra-cool Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, He is a musician with centuries of skill and knowledge: in a post-apocalyptic looking Detroit he composes technically advanced drone music in a ratty mansion filled with recording gear. She is a bibliophile visiting from Tangiers where she regularly hangs out with Christopher Marlow (a dilapidated John Hurt) who has been complaining (for centuries) about Shakespeare getting all his writing credit. She packs for the visit with two suitcases full of books — no need for a change of clothes and a toothbrush.
As he did previously with The Limits of Control Jarmusch composes rich visual compositions, favoring atmosphere over story. Control took the tropes and situations of the espionage genre and set it in picturesque locations around Spain, eschewing the closures of plot. The languid couplings of Lovers are bathed in chiaroscuro lighting to recall Renaissance paintings; the crumbling gothic interiors of Detroit and Tangiers are decadently disordered. These are not the speedy vampires or bloodsucking freaks of traditional lore, but blasé art lovers who maintain stocks of the finest blood, purchased with wads of cash they hand over to their supplier, a bewildered doctor (a hysterically funny Jeffrey Wright as Dr Watson). They sip their vintage hemoglobin from delicate goblets.
It is all done with dry wit and an elegant formal presentation. Jarmusch, who is also a musician, opens the film with Adam perusing vintage guitars and LPs with the help of his dedicated assistant, Ian. Adam has been around for quite a while — easily identifies the 1966 Hagstrom and early-1960’s Silvertone and a few other vintage guitars. He once even composed pieces for Robert Schumann. These days he entrusts Ian with the task of finding instruments while keeping fans ignorant of his whereabouts. Ian is compensated with rolls of bills and, as played by Anton Yelchin, he becomes a version of ‘Igor’ as roadie.
The vampires’ eternal solitary existence, made up of endless arty nights and boring decades, grinds on. Karl Marx observed that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” When you live forever, life is endless frustration. Mortals are referred to as ‘zombies.” Ian says to Eve, “It’s the zombies I’m sick of and their fear of their own imaginations.” Adam charges Ian with getting him a wooden bullet. As Chekhov argued about the inevitable logic of drama, the appearance of a gun in the first act must mean someone will fire it later on. Will he do himself in, not with a wooden stake, but with a gun pointed to his heart? Such are the tribulations of an immortal blood-drinking artist.
Quite another reality lies beneath the impassive perfection that Scarlett Johansson presents to the world as the mask of a hungry extraterrestrial in Under the Skin. Director Jonathan Glazer has taken Michel Faber’s novel and pretty well dispensed with its premise — that aliens are farming humans as food — and focused on the hunt. Johansson’s character cruises Scotland in a van, picks up men, drives around, converses with them, and then invites them to follow her to a location where they strip off their clothes in hopes of a seduction. Instead, the guys are slowly dipped into some kind of abstract space where they proceed to float, paralyzed in embryonic fluid, as they are reduced to flapping epidermi. It’s murky and artfully unclear, but visually stunning.
To make the hunt as authentic as possible Glazer used tiny hidden cameras to catch the actual casual interactions between Johansson and real pedestrians. The result is creepy. It seems odd that men would get in a van with a stranger, even if the invitee is an unrecognizable Scarlett Johansson in a brown wig, but that is what happened. The real life Scots who accepted the invitation would then be asked by the director to agree to continue their ‘performance’ into the fictional story portion.
One such passenger is a man with what appears to be neurofibromatosis, though far less severe than the condition of the renowned Elephant Man. She treats him with great kindness, unconcerned with his deformity. The man is real, and understandably self-conscious. Whether this was scripted or improvised, it is quite touching. There is an engrossing beauty in his twisted face: the scene is shot in a way that focuses on his disfiguration. It looks real because it is. As the story progresses, we see how this ‘alien being’ comes to understand the idea of compassion. We experience the world through alien eyes. When not pulverizing her victims, ‘she’ becomes curious about the emotions and relationships of humans. Because we are put on edge with the film’s breath-taking photography and abstract effects, we too become distinctly uneasy. The blend of real and enacted draws us deeper into a heightened way of seeing.
With its blend of the real and the fantastical, director Glazer’s movie becomes an intriguing experiment in exploring the subjective point of view; we are gawking at men gawking at the flesh of Scarlett Johansson. The fateful implication of the “male gaze” is played out to such an extent that Under the Skin turns into a feminist science fiction movie. The film takes its time to draw us in, slowly building up the tension, lulling us with plenty of flesh and voyeuristic fantasy, until it explodes with a shocker of an ending I never saw coming.
Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed a trio of documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. His third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years, has just been completed. You can read more of his work on his blog.